By Wanelisa Xaba
*Trigger warning: sexual abuse, abortion*
When I was one day old, I almost died.
You see, I was born three months too early, and had complications with my lungs so I needed an operation. I still have a huge hole under my left boob to prove it. The problem is that on the day I was born, the nurses were on strike so things got awkward at the hospital, you could say. The situation was so dire that my aunt had already telephoned my family to tell them that I had died and older women on our street had been organized to break the news to my grandmother.
However, I did not die. Those turbulent first few days of my life have proven to be quite indicative of many spiritual, physical, psychological and emotional almost deaths that would later come. A foreshadowing of how most of my life, growing up dirt poor in South Afrikkka, has been about living through ‘almost deaths’.
But living with mental illnesses has been the most educational yet harrowing experience of my life.
I was diagnosed with two mental illnesses while I was a Pentecostal Christian. Many Christian friends shamed me for deciding to go on medication because they thought that I could overcome it through prayer. At that time, I was in my third year, I had had a mental breakdown and I was unable to travel on public transport because I had become so sensitive to stimulation and noise.
Even though I felt shamed by my Christian community, I went on the medication as I thought this was my only option. The medication made me weak, more depressed and physically sick. The doctors told me it would last about eight weeks. I persevered. I knew I couldn’t tell my family because throughout my childhood I had watched my mother shamed and victimized for having manic episodes where she got violent and didn’t reason properly.
I had made it to university and was my family’s only hope of a better life. I couldn’t get sick.
But I never got better. I got worse on the medication.
The days got darker. The showers got fewer. The meals got less. I didn’t know what time of the day it was or which day of the week. Friends got thinner. I couldn’t breathe. My heart felt heavy and dark. Or I couldn’t feel anything at all. College friends pitied me from far. Males asked where my smile went. I stopped going to classes. I wore sunglasses on UCT Jammie shuttles to hide my tears.
I read Biko. Initially I felt liberated, then went crashing further down after realizing the true nature of white supremacy. I became more of an activist and that made me depressed more. The medication was not working but making me worse. I slept most days. No energy.
I got a boyfriend. He was sexually and emotionally abusive and held me psychologically hostage. I got pregnant and had an abortion. The nurse at the clinic was emotionally abusive and she hit me after the procedure.
The meds were still not working, instead I was battling with suicide.
Biko was missing something. I met my lecturer Yaliwe Clarke and she introduced me to Black feminism and I could breathe. I met some amazing white feminists and Black feminists in Cape Town, including my sister Azola. I had a compass. But my medication was still making me suicidal. It was not only after a serious suicide attempt in October of that year 2011 that my doctor who I saw three times a week suggested that we change my medication.
Few friends knew what was going on. You see, it is the secrecy and shame that you have to live through when you suffer from mental illnesses. The able-ist language that even caring friends can use that make you feel disgusting and dirty. Inadequate. And most of the time people treat you like you are faking it. Most times you feel guilty for needing help and support so much from friends. My greatest fear is losing friends because I have become too much of a burden. I have learnt to cope, and I am learning the courage to share this part of my life with people.
And in sharing and being honest I have come to know the deepest trauma: when you share something that deeply affects your life and subsequently shamed for it. I will be honest and say, I have not learned how to deal with this yet. And because this is such a tender part of me, I am not sure how I can. But, I am light years from where I began, more open to being open.
I think we need to be careful about how we talk about mental illnesses/disabilities. We are bodies carrying trauma and we are triggered and re-traumatized in various ways. Living poor under white heterosexist capitalist supremacy is tough but having to navigate it living in shame and secrecy because you have mental illnesses is brutal. When you are a black woman and you are expected to be strong, it is even harder to pick up the phone to send that WhatsApp message that says “I want to end my life, please can you come get me”.
But the most important thing is that I am living. Even if sometimes the only thing standing between me and death is a WhatsApp message. I am very much alive. I have been off medication for a year now but I will never judge anyone who is on it. I get triggered and I relapse. Sometimes my mom gets manic and threatens to stab me because she thinks I am plotting to have her killed. I love her through it because I know to an extent that she lives in a community that shames people like us. The health system fails us. Mental illnesses are a taboo, even in ‘conscious’ circles.
Why am I sharing this?
I am sharing it because it’s time that Black feminism takes narratives of people like us seriously. It is time that Black feminism fights for us too. Those who are Black, poor and living with mental illnesses and often cannot afford medication. It is for this very reason that I went off my medication. That alone triggered me into a manic state.
I share this not for pity but because I am not fucken strong, I am strength itself. Not because I am a black woman but because I have an army of women behind me holding me up, including my grandmother who died when I was three months old. I am strong because I know how to be weak and vulnerable.
Even though I battle with shame, I refuse to embody shame. I got two degrees living with mental illnesses and participate and make connections with many amazing women in this community SAYF. I grow and learn so much. I am evolving. I am Black, woman, beautiful and I am here.
For more pieces on mental health and depression read It Never Ends, Nirvana and I tried to commit suicide. Also read the series on mental health. We also have a podcast about being queer in a relationship and navigating mental health and a Twitter chat on being Mentally Mindful.
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